Friends Come and Go
As Expat Families Relocate
July 20, 2006
This is the transient time of the year in a notoriously transient community. School is out, summer is here and people are on the move. Friends and acquaintances have departed or are preparing to depart for: Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Tasmania, Washington D.C., Guangzhou, Stockholm and elsewhere. These people are both returning home and moving on to their next assignment, in approximately equal numbers.
People who have lived this lifestyle for a long time manage to shrug it off, attending one bon voyage party after another then moving on. As expat newbies, this is a little more difficult — the volume of movement is quite disconcerting — but what else can you do? It’s not always so simple for the children.
My eight-year-old son Jacob recently turned to me and said, “Three of my best friends are leaving.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know you will miss Michael, Andrew and Javier a lot, but…”
“Javier’s not leaving. I’m talking about Charlie. With Andrew gone, I am going to have to be Javy’s best friend.”
I had never even heard of Charlie but I realized that I had to break the news that Jacob’s dear friend, Javier Wong, was decamping for California.
“Uh, sorry, Jacob, Javier is leaving, too. I thought you knew that.”
He looked crushed, like his breath was taken away, and I felt his pain. When we moved here last August, Jacob immediately bonded with Andrew Moy, the son of Rebecca’s colleague, Kathy Chen, and Andrew’s longtime best friend, Javier. The two boys let Jacob into their inner circle and the trio’s closeness has never wavered.
Best friends Andrew, Jacob and Javier.
Javy and Andrew have grown up together and they go everywhere seemingly as one. I had wondered how the two will fare apart, with Andrew moving to D.C. while Javy heads to the Bay Area. Until this moment, however, I hadn’t fully realized how deeply their departures would affect my own son. They have been like brothers to Jacob, and it is hard to replace that kind of unspoken, understood closeness.
As hard as it will be for Jacob to see his dear friends go, I suspect the departing boys will have a harder time. Javier has lived here his whole life, and Andrew since he was four. Their passports are American but Beijing is home and they are fully comfortable in their school, their friendships, and their lives. Both will be going through a transition and adjustment to a new home every bit as real as the one we all go through when arriving here.
Meanwhile, another type of exodus is also under way; movers, packers and giant shipping containers clog the lanes of our housing compound and incoming or prospective newcomers prowl the streets clutching relocation guides, real-estate agents by their sides. Many families are packing their bags and boarding planes for extended summer breaks back in their homelands. In most cases, the wife and kids head out while the husband stays here alone, usually joining them at the end of the summer for two or three weeks, or however much time he can get away from work.
The expat-heavy housing compounds around here began noticeably emptying out a few weeks ago, within days of the international schools letting out. Our kids’ school was the latest finishing; the last day was Friday, June 23, and we had friends on planes back to England and the U.S. that afternoon and the following morning.
The rushed departure puzzles me a bit, particularly since most of the rushers seemed to be people wrapping up their first year in Beijing, like us. While I too am somewhat anxious to get my feet back on American soil for a few weeks, I don’t have any desire to rush out. The end of our first year in Beijing feels like a significant milestone, an achievement worth lingering over and reflecting on.
To some extent, the different approaches reflect a broader attitude toward living here; some people exist as if constantly on borrowed time, or an extended vacation. They are here, but their real lives are elsewhere, in some cases complete with fully furnished homes while they live in China in pre-furnished houses or apartments. We have tried to avoid that mindset.
We kept our house in New Jersey, a choice that made the initial decision less emotionally complex, but it is emptied out and occupied by tenants. We discarded many possessions, put some in storage and moved our favorite things here, to our new home. That somehow felt like an important part of acknowledging that Beijing is more than just where we are for a little while.
Andrew and Javy’s families will struggle to right themselves and get readjusted to life in America, because they are leaving home. Others, meanwhile, count down the days until they end their exile; their readjustments may be easier, but their lives here are less rich. Meanwhile, Jacob, and many other kids like him, only know that their soul mates are leaving and they will have to find some new ones. I think he understands that a lot of families will be arriving in August.
Write to Alan Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org